One thing that never ceases to amaze me is that even though we are adults ourselves (and therefore we surely should understand adults better than anyone), we so often get adult coaching wrong! It’s valuable to take a few minutes to reflect on why adults are different and what that means for the way we coach them. The aim is to balance specific principles of adult learning with simple ideas on how to develop your adult coaching. The goal of the tips in this article is to help you do this.
BONUS: download the “3 Key Things to Remember When Teaching Adults”and “5 Core Characteristics of Adult Learners” – one download, two pages summarising key take-aways from this article: [download id=”1057″]
Lets start by understanding more about what learning actually involves. We know, for example, that:
- Learning is about a permanent change in behaviour
- Learning a technique is about learning an action, but learning a skill is about how to apply the technique at the right time in the right way
- People learn in different ways
- Just because a teacher teaches, doesn’t mean that a learner learns!
Key things that need to be remembered when teaching adults
Learning should be active, not passive. In other words, the way to learn tennis is to play tennis, and not just to hear the coach talking about it!
TIP: Adults need to hit lots of balls to learn to play the game, so make sure that a large amount of the instruction is given individually whilst adults are playing
Learning is individual and personal. One person might want to learn to serve, whilst another wants more consistency on the forehand. When the subject is of little interest to the player, the player is less likely to learn! Of course this is much easier to do with smaller groups, so think about your coach; player ratios to improve the leaning environment
TIP: try to individualise your coaching so that everyone has a personal goal or teaching point related to your group objective for the lesson.
Learning is voluntary, not compulsory. Is it any coincidence that at school, you were probably best at the subjects which most interested you, or where the teacher somehow made the subject come to life? Adults choose to come to tennis and in the same way will choose to walk away from your programme if it does not interest them or meet their expectations
TIP: People like choice, so ensure that your adult programme offers coaching as one of a range of different options. Organised or supervised play, team training, Cardio Tennis and competition are also important aspects of an adult programme.
Characteristics of adult learners
Adults and children are very different in almost every respect. It therefore follows that the approach taken by the coach when teaching adults should vary from that with children. Let’s start by identifying what we know about adults as learners; adults are:
- Over 18 (although some tennis programmes start at 16)
- Continuing a process of personal development, rather than being at the beginning of the process.
- Coming to you with a package of experiences and values, both good and bad.
- Going to have expectations and pre-conceptions about the learning process.
- Fighting competing interests.
- Already going to have their own set patterns of learning.
As you read through this list, ask yourself how these characteristics vary from what you know about teaching children.
Adults are continuing a process of personal development
- Many, though not all, adults have been through their formal education and have learnt through continuing experiences in life and in work.
- Many have set ideas about what they like, what they want to do, and even how they want to do it.
- It is therefore important for the coach to discuss goals and objectives with the player, to establish motives, intentions and possible outcomes.
- Fundamental to this is why the adults are there in the first place, and whether they are looking for game improvement, exercise and fitness, competition or a social environment.
- Coaches should ask such questions, and programmes should help players achieve their personal goals. The “I am, I think, I want” system shown in the first of this series of articles shows you how this can happen.
Adults come with a package of experiences and values
Some of these experiences may come from sport, and many will be from other aspects of life. Some experiences may be positive and help them learn to play tennis, whereas others may be regarded as negative experiences. Take two typical scenarios:
- School lapsers – those who played at school or college, and then stopped playing to pursue a career or to start a family. Such players may be apprehensive because they have not played for so long.
- Expectation of a teaching style – the way we were taught as children has a significant effect on the way we expect to learn as adults. Given that tennis has traditionally been taught from a very technical perspective, this is what many adults will expect, but not necessarily what is best for them.
Adult expectations of the coach – “if I pay for coaching, I expect to improve!”
They expect (quite rightly!) to play – it is up to the coach to ensure that groups are of sufficiently small numbers to allow everyone to play. Most adults will happily pay more for a smaller group if they know if will offer them more individual attention and a better learning environment
They expect (quite rightly!) to learn, although many do not know what exactly. They will reasonably assume that they will become better tennis players
Adults have competing interests
We know that many adults are busy with work and children.
Some may play other sports which complement or contradict what they will learn when playing tennis. Just think about teaching a squash player a topspin backhand or teaching a footballer to back away from the bounce of the ball!
Adults already have their own set patterns of learning
The job of the coach is to recognise this where possible, and to adapt the teaching approach to suit the learning style of the student.
How does adult learning differ from child learning?
Whilst adults may occasionally enjoy behaving like big kids, they are actually adults. This means that they:
- Learn differently
- Move differently
- Think differently
- Act differently
Surely this means you should coach differently! Let’s look in more detail at the differences between coaching children and coaching adults:
Adults are more intrinsically motivated.
- Parents tend to organise and pay for children’s activities, so they often end up having a key role in deciding which sports a child will play, and where and when they will play. A significant element of the motivation of a child’s learning will therefore be imposed and extrinsic.
- Adults are more likely to decide which activities they participate in, when, where and how often, on the basis of an interest in, and an enjoyment derived from, their own participation
- These factors are significant in shaping the relationship between the coach and the player and the approach that the player takes to their own learning.
TIP: choice is important but it must also fit with lifestyle, jobs and family. Try to offer flexibility in the adult programme where possible.
Adults have greater experience
- Adults have the benefit of life experience, but don’t assume that experience in tennis is proportionate to age, because it depends how long the player has been playing. It is quite possible that a 10-year old child may have more tennis experience than a 45-year old man!
- This experience could be:
- physical experience (how long has the player played the game? who with? at what level?). Greater experience of older players may mean that adult learners are better able to pace themselves, displaying greater patience and understanding that learning may take time.
- learning experience (has that player been taught? if so how? is the player self-taught?)
TIP: use analogies and examples for their experience. Use examples from a squash court to teach slice, or from badminton to teach a serve
Adults have more patience
- In general, older athletes display greater patience than do younger ones. They understand that learning takes time, and they are prepared to invest more time in achieving their goals, and are happy to see improvement over a longer period of time.
- Adults are often more interested in detail. They quite often want to understand the thinking behind what they are learning, so take time (but not too much time!) to explain things
TIP: encourage adults to set longer term goals for themselves. If you think about it, it happens in other areas of life, for example with career ambitions or fitness regimes.
Adults are better communicators
- Better communication skills provide the opportunity for greater feedback. Encourage adults to feed back and discuss their own progress
- It is often to easier to discuss strategies, goals and a more individualised approach as a result.
- Consequently, a more democratic approach can be taken with adults
TIP: remember that you are teaching a game, and that real technical improvement will be difficult with many adults. Talk about tactics and strategies, and give appropriate technical information which helps them to improve in those areas.